Chris Monks quits Stephen Joseph Theatre after six years

Chris Monks

Guys, continued apologies for anyone waiting for the Brighton Fringe roundup. Next post, I promise. But before I can do that, a bit a surprise news I didn’t see coming at all: Chris Monks, Alan Ayckbourn’s successor as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is stepping down on the 11th December, falling just short of a seven year tenure. It’s a surprise because it’s a sharp contrast to his famous predecessor Alan Ayckbourn who was around for donkey’s years. Likewise for Max Roberts at Live Theatre.

The last time I heard an announcement of this nature was Simon Stallworthy’s sudden departure from the Gala Theatre in 2010 after five years. But that was pretty acrimonious affair after his cherished new writing programme got cut back very quickly. (For the record, I don’t miss the Gala’s new writing at all, but I still felt it was a bit off to cancel plays already programmed.) Chris Monks’s departure, however, is somewhat more mysterious. The main reason given is that the arrival of a new chief executive made it “the right time to step aside”. But with outgoing chief executive Stephen Wood also having been round for donkey’s years, that to me felt like another stage of moving on from the Ayckbourn era. Unless there’s a massive long-standing feud between Chris Monks and incoming chief executive Matthew Russell that none of us know about, it does seem a very unusual reason to choose to step down.

But neither do I have any reason to think Monks jumped before he was pushed. His début at the SJT was great. His adaptations of The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and Carmen went down a storm, and rightly so. And pretty much everything else he produced was equally successful: conventional plays, new plays, new adaptations, his take on Shakespeare, classic plays over Christmas, even community plays. And, okay, I personally thought Cox and Box: Mrs. Bouncer’s Legacy wasn’t as good as what he’d done before (to put it extremely mildly), but I accept I’m in the minority over this one. Neither this nor anything else explains why he’d want to go, or why anyone else would want him to go.

Perhaps the only clue is the number of plays he’s directed. From his arrival in 2009 up to 2012, he went full-on into all things SJT, with two or three plays each summer season. But in 2013, he suddenly took a break, with Alan Ayckbourn and John Godber providing most of the programme instead. He was back in 2014, but – now that I think about it – it’s not been at the same pace. Just two plays in 2014, with only one in the main season (although the other one was an unexpected megahit). And then nothing in 2015 apart from a revival of 2014’s Cox and Box. Of course, all of this should be treated with caution; when some unexpected news breaks, it’s tempting to re-analyse old facts to make them fit the new news. But the pattern I’m picking up is that after Chris Monks’s initial flurry going through his back catalogue of greatest hits, there’s not been that much new material.

So my guess is this comes down to what he says are his future plans: to go back to freelancing and concentrating on his writing. I suspect that the commitments of being artistic director have taken up more time than he thought, especially with (as I understand it) cuts to arts funding forcing artistic directors to spend more of their time covering things that use to be someone else’s job. Or I might have guessed wrongly, and perhaps it’s something else entirely.

But anyway, that’s by the by. It’s just speculation over something that’s already been announced. The more important question now is: what happens next? We know that a new artistic director will be appointed soon. After that, there’s three big questions:

  • Will Alan Ayckbourn stay? The answer is a highly likely yes. For all the good work Chris Monks put in making the Stephen Joseph Theatre more than just Ayckbourn, he remains their greatest asset, and they would be insane to lose him. But Hull Truck lost John Godber after a rift with a new chief executive, so it’s not impossible something like this could happen.
  • What will the new artistic director bring to the Stephen Joseph Theatre? This is the biggie. When Chris Monks took over in 2009, big change wasn’t so much the departure of Ayckbourn – who just carried on doing what he was doing – but the arrival of Chris Monks bringing his own distinctive work in. Now they’re pretty much back to square one, and how the new artistic director shapes the SJT’s future is the big unknown.
  • Will they keep the new writing programme going? One of the most positive steps forward I felt the SJT was to appoint an associate director with a special remit for new writing. This got going in 2014 with two productions, which, whilst not perfect, was a very promising start. And having got this far, I’d be sorry to lose this. But will the new management of SJT feel the same?

So unpredictable times lie ahead in Scarborough. We’ll probably have to wait until a new artistic director is named before we’ll have some idea as to where this is going. In the meantime, there’s only one thing I can say to any forecasts of what happens next: we’ll see.

UPDATE: And the appointment was Paul Robinson, artistic director of new writing-focused Theatre 503. For my reaction to this news and what it mean for these three questions, come this way.

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